Why The Apparatchiks Would Have Loved General Education

Yesterday I was having lunch in our student union when a staff member in our Provost’s office stopped by to say hello and to commiserate about the impending end of summer break. She mentioned that as part of our re-accreditation process we were about to launch another round of soul-searching about our general education curriculum. During our brief chat I put in a pitch for the umpteenth time for an end to the incredible number of required courses we seem to think will result in our students being “liberally educated.” She nodded in agreement and then we both rolled our eyes because we knew nothing will change.

Soviet era apparatchiks would have loved our system because it maps almost perfectly onto the state structures they built in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s and elaborated across Eastern Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. Their system was driven by a combination of ideology and the demands of a production model that subsumed all other needs to the imperatives of the five year plan. Our general education curriculum likewise is based in an ideology (“You need to be liberally educated. Really.”) and the demands of the production model rule all other considerations.

Before I proceed, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that for six years I was part of the general education nomenklatura here at George Mason. I ran one of our required general education courses (Western Civilization), but alas, did not get one of those special highway lanes to drive in or a dacha in the mountains. I did get a reduced teaching load, so I too am tainted and so at some point probably need to be lustrated. If that means I can no longer serve on any university committees, so be it. I accept my punishment.

Our curriculum here, which is similar to far too many across the country began with lofty ideals. In fact (and without apparent irony) our motto for the curriculum is “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” No kidding. But it has devolved into a set of entitlements for the various departments and so I think there is no real hope of reform in my lifetime.

Once upon a time students had to follow “distribution requirements,” but now they must take specific courses (History 100, Communication 101, Information Technology 103) and if they don’t, well, they can’t graduate. Each department with one of these courses on the books depends on enrollments from those courses to fulfill our “seat targets.” If we don’t meet our seat targets, our budgets get cut. Thus, we must defend our courses against all Western capitalist infiltration. Sometimes departments do the unthinkable and give up a required course, as mine did two years ago (but we had two and so could be magnanimous and give up one), but only rarely and they usually regret the fiscal consequences.

And so, year after year, our general education requirements ossify. As long as the budgeting system is what it is, the curriculum will be what it is–a production-based system that denies our students the opportunity to choose for themselves the courses that might prepare them for the world they will live in and eventually run.

Just remember kids. We know better.

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